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Reader Contest: A Day In The Life Of Your School


HomepageInspired by a vivid reader comment on my Chicago blog from last week (A Day At Crane High School), I'm having a contest of sorts for the next few days in which readers are invited to describe the school (or administrative office, or reform office) where they work, or where their children attend, or where they pass by every day, or where they tutor. So brush off your writing skills and tell us what it's like where you are -- what it looks like, what it sounds like, what things you notice from being there all the time, or how it's changed lately. [Or, if you have a great blog entry that does the same thing, tell us where to find it.]


Every day this year has been absolutely fantastic but today was even better. Apparently the central office learned that its not a good idea to cut teaching staff by 1/4th during a gang war (we had to deal with seven murders last year.) So now we’re over-staffed by 25% with two uniformed police full-time and several on back up. Our only drive-by this year wasn’t fatal.

Most importantly, I had close to a couple of hundred belly laughs, not to mention chest-butts and hugs. We started with the best Honors History Class (the sophomores) in years. My wife always packs a big bag of fruit for the kids, and we got to rag on the wimps who were afraid to eat oranges from South Africa. The girl who had never eaten a plum didn’t like it so I gulped down the uneaten half. My wife also sent me off with an X-ray of our dog, giving another chance for the kids to debate who is weirder, my wife or me. One of my favorite activities, ragging on our catcher, backfired when some middle school kids came in and she gave them her “look.” I followed the 6th graders out, apologizing that I’d protect them from “Prickly Pear, “ I mean Rose, but I’m afraid of her. Laughing they said that they’d come back in a few years. We had another visitor, a deeply disturbed gang member who was clearly opening herself up, and my class responded wonderfully.

In violation of district-wide reforms, I have continued to start with the 20th century before looping back to ancient history. So we read about the post-WWI Pan-Arabic nationalist movement, and continued watching scenes from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” concentrating on two themes: the relevance of Lawrence to the War on Terrorism and the movie’s depiction of free will vs. fate. Fatefully, I couldn’t get some girls to stop sneaking looks at a book on horoscopes so I gave my mock serious tirade against “Multi-tasking.” That lead to a series of jokes and puns when ever I made a mistake. My errors were due to multi-tasking, trying to teach and maintain discipline at the same time. Everyone knew that the book was fated to be confiscated, prompting that glare from the prickly pear.

Although this was the 8th week and we’d had some sophisticated lessons on the transformation from colonialism to nationalism, WWI and the Russian Revolution and Civil War, this is the first time we attempted to write two paragraphs. When I asked for a thesis sentence, the sweet and bright girl on the front lost her smile and asked if she could do Section Review instead. I stopped, got serious, but became even more nurturing and told them about my high school fear of writing and how I struggled for ten years until graduate school at Rutgers. It took one of the world’s greatest historians to shape me up. We have three years, I said This class is going to turn around our school, and they will never forget that accomplishment. Mr. C. taught at NYU and next week he’ll start teaching them how to write paragraphs also. We know what it takes, and they are going to get there. Besides, their generation with blogs and text-messaging will transform writing. So, don’t get frustrated and work smart.

The rest of the day I had seniors and did something I have never done before - I told them half of the truth. The central office, not our principal or me, mandated that we work out of the textbook every day. (Our seniors read on a 5th or 6th grade level but they have the moral consciousness of teens and now they want real learning.) So, I we’ll check out textbooks and today we’ll read the 4th Amendment out of the text, not the paperback documents. Nothing else will change. (I didn’t tell them that we are supposed to get 10 classroom visits to monitor compliance. I was surprised that the kids asked few questions because they know the I’m resisting the district’s scripted instruction plan; They seemed to sense that we in the building were not talking about it because we are protecting them. Teachers who stand up for them are called, “Ryders.”) And I had bought a lock and chain in case they wanted to store the books in my cabinets.

Having written a legal history monograph and with 20 years of experience in the Socratic method, it easy to take inner city kids into a discussion on the level of law school. After all, the room is full of case studies. Everyone always has multiple experiences of “Driving While Black” or “Driving While Brown,” including the new kid from the projects in Chicago. Unfortunately, more tragic stories were mentioned. (Interestingly, one girl gets $14 per month from her dad whose doing Life, while another gets $5.) One girl who was nothing but trouble from 8th grade until this year, was coming back from her first senior year meltdown. She started by griping at me a few times, but before long I was able to jokingly gripe at her for “reading my mind” and asking my questions just before I did. After explaining that the 4th amend applied to the homeless, she asked whether it would apply to a mobile home.

We also took care to discuss how to handle this knowledge in the real world. We compared what they had done right and wrong in previous encounters with the police. They teased me about all my years in the “hood” and that the police must think I’m white. I recounted an experience with Anita Hill and they concluded I was atypically polite, prompting hoots and complaints that I’m not as Black as they thought. They prefer my stories where I get myself in trouble. Then we wrote on strict construction vs. broad construction in interpreting the Bill of Rights. The written work was crude, but the verbal discussion reached a masters level in all classes.

I was flagging down our police woman to arrange her visit to the next class, when I saw that she and other patrolmen were busy. They had raided the house across the street and they were dealing with a troubled sophomore of mine. He was too stoned, and his grandmother was too worried to recognize me. So I joined a conversation with an E.D. teacher and two assistant principals. One of our concerns was a student of mine whose mother was just murdered and the guardian still couldn’t get it together with Medicaid to arrange counseling. Our big worry was an Seriously Emotionally Disturbed student who they had gotten into a ½ day job. Had he skipped the bus and gone to the busted drug house? The A.P. speculated that a third was self-medicating a back injury, but she was stymied by parental inattention.

As with my colleagues, it’s a great day when you can have one-on-one conversations with the gang-bangers who were trying. The outside gang truce had failed, but everyone in school is sick of the blood. I felt good about every single talk. Then I felt great when the SED kid wandered into my room. My seniors were in the middle of a blunt discussion, but discussion stopped and they were sensitive and welcoming to this struggling kid. And he was clearly pleased that the assistant principal had made a special call to his job because she cared about him.

I’ll skip the political discussions we had after school, except for two points. We made special efforts to joke with the people who are tasked with monitoring our compliance with the top down mandates. If we really care for the kids, we need to cover each others’ rear ends. Secondly, I found out that our new Parent Liaison, who makes home visits, represents us in truancy courts, and takes the same risks during riots, gets paid 1/4 of his salary in California, despite raising two foster kids in addition to his own. (I don’t know how many of our staff are raising how many foster kids but every day it seems like I meet new ones. And when you are completely stressed out its good to remember that any of those kids could be the foster child of a friend.) And if I’m allowed to describe my last 24 hours as a teacher, I’d describe last night’s middle school football game and my nightly phone call from my adopted daughter who teaches in the projects of Bed Stuy. Being a Black woman from generational poverty she chose the toughest challenge and excelled. But she can’t handle the non-stop pressure to stay on the scripted lessons.

In between it all, I lobbied to reopen the gym now that we have violence and drugs under control within the building. I don’t know how you can keep doing this job into your fifties if you aren’t able to run the court and play basketball with the kids. And all though the day I kept getting visits from middle school kids, getting them excited about taking World History, Black History, and Government when they get to high school.

Many times in the last 15 years I have come home stunned, wondering whether I had been dreaming. Except for the first few months last year when I had 240 students with the majority being on parole or having some other paper trail, classroom instruction has usually been wonderful. But when you contemplated the entire day, the magnitude of the tragedy was often overwhelming. Is this possible in America? Is this possible at all? But last year spun out of control because the district had pushed high stakes standardized testing and it tried to save about $300,000 in teachers salaries. Now, they’ve invested an additional $300,000 dollars on teachers and we’re turning things around. (Yes we have all that drama in a 6th through 12th school of 600.) We experience the brutality that comes from generational poverty and fear. But we also experience great kindness. And the way we feel now, we’re even going to beat the central office.

In elite universities we often go by first names but that wasn’t allowed so my students call me D.T., so I’ll use that here.

Although this story spans a year in my daughter's life, I thought I would share it with everyone...

I am the mother of a 13 year old who attended a classical magnet school on the city's southside. I have since decided to homeschool my daughter... The public school she attended was "test-crazy" (as they all are these days, I suppose). So much so that they would pass out test-prep workbooks in October to prepare for tests in March and April. These workbooks made up the bulk of the homework assignments during the year. No grammar books, no reading books, just test prep workbooks. During the year, the school held several"test prep" assemblies, and school administrators would often visit classrooms to scare the children into doing well on these test, even outlining the consequences of what would happen if they didn't score well. After a couple of months of this, the tension became so apparent that fights broke out in the classrooms over trivial matters that normally would have been solved an in instant,incidents involving students rose, and students dissolved into tears in the classroom. All of this seemed to culminate first with the apparent breakdown of a student in the classroom, and finally with the tearful breakdown of my daughter's teacher right in front of the students (she, incidentally, retired after the school year). This brought out fears and anxieties in my daughter the likes of which she had never before experienced. For the rest of the year, I refused to allow my daughter to complete any more worksheets, which were merely exercises in filling in ovals anyway...

My daughter has finally settled down. She does not get nearly as anxious as she used to when taking tests, but it has taken quite some time to get to this point. She lost her self-confidence, creativity, and joy, and I have lost faith in our system of education.

Each day I read some of the postings on this website. Today I really wanted folks to understand the other side of things. I know it's hard being a teacher in today's classrooms. It's equally difficult being a parent and a student.


Posted by: Yeah... | October 11, 2007 at 09:39 AM

My school is great!
The students are good, the staff is friendly.
My principal, believe it or not, is a real teacher's principal he is a decent guy who treats everyone with respect.
It is the only place like it.

Posted by: | October 10, 2007 at 10:28 PM

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